Is your relationship for life? The American psychologist John Gottman devoted his life to the study of love. He found that happy couples have a few things in common. Discover the seven characteristics of a good relationship.
Julie Sharon-Wagschal is a psychologist and has her own practice Center for Relationship Learning. She is trained in the ideas of psychologist John Gottman. “When couples break up, it’s often because of poor communication that gradually ends the relationship,” she explains. “As a rule, needs and feelings have not been clearly formulated and expressed for years. People know each other less and less, grow apart. If couples go to therapy, they do so an average of six years after the problems started. In some cases, so much has already happened that it is too late.”
Gottman has it in his book The seven pillars in a good relationship about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These four horsemen are ways couples express negative feelings towards each other and predict whether a couple will stay together or not. It’s mostly about the road. Because even happy couples who stay together for the long term express negative feelings toward each other, Gottman discovered.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse are
The ways couples express negative feelings towards each other, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, are:
Your partner wanted to buy dog food. You come home, the dog is hungry, but there is no food. You say, “Why didn’t you buy food, what’s your problem?!” You can also say: “Why didn’t we manage to buy feed and how are we going to solve it now?” Because the dog is hungry.” Or, “I really hate this. There’s no dog food in the house when you were supposed to get it. Can you do it now?”
2. React defensively
If your partner feels attacked, he or she will defend themselves. “You didn’t ask me that at all. And why are you home so late?” While the reaction could also have been: “Yes, stupid, I forgot that. I’m going to the store right away.”
In a less than happy relationship, it is easy to react with contempt to a defensive response. For example, you roll your eyes and say, “I’m also the only one in this family who acts like a responsible adult.”
4. Build wall
When they feel so slighted, some partners withdraw from the situation to protect themselves. A person who does this stops responding to what the other is saying or even walks away. In eighty percent of cases, he or she has an increased heart rate (over one hundred), which makes it impossible to have a constructive conversation.
With couples that didn’t stay together, the four riders talked a lot
“The survey was done among newly married couples, all of whom reported being happy,” says Sharon. “In the couples that did not stay together, the Four Horsemen talked a lot: there was criticism, they were defensive, they spoke of their partner with contempt, and they erected a wall. These things also cause a physical reaction: their heart rate increased, like their blood pressure, they started sweating and more stress hormones were released. The couples who stayed together sometimes had such a rider, but they were able to recover it. For example, by saying: I didn’t mean that, let me to try again. And the other one also accepted that attempt to make amends. They were able to prevent that escalation,” says Sharon.
And it is important, because when a conversation with negative emotions escalates again and again, and the physical reactions take place, the communication is so stressful that it feels less and less safe to have a conversation with your partner. It ultimately causes that relationship to deteriorate.
Learn to communicate in your relationship
The insights that Gottman gained he gained mainly by observing couples. In his ‘Love lab’ he followed thousands of couples and discovered patterns and similarities between long-term relationships and couples who broke up. The difference between ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ couples is not that with the first group it is a constant party and never an angry word, he saw. But they have some things in common – a kind of foundation that Gottman has described as the building blocks of a good relationship. These seven qualities may or may not sound like things a couple just does on their own. Is it like it is already determined in advance whether your relationship is doomed or not?
“No, definitely not. The studies Gottman did were in couples where no intervention took place. He observed what happened, and only later did he look at what the happy couples did differently. You are in control of the way you communicate on. So if you want to, you can certainly do something about it, you can learn to communicate in a different way,” says Sharon.
Breaking patterns in a relationship is a lot of work
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, she warns. “Breaking patterns is a lot of work, especially because you have often been taught it at home. You see how your parents communicate, how they communicated with you. Whether certain things were discussed or not. Were your feelings important? Such elements are very important for how you develop in relationships.”
An important difference is that happy couples have far more positive interactions than negative ones. “It doesn’t happen automatically either,” Sharon explains. “You don’t say once: I love you, and then it’s done. You have to keep repeating that. Sometimes it’s a good idea to make a decision: every day when I wake up, I say something nice to my partner. It might feel crazy, but if you mean it, it’s okay if it’s not spontaneous. Because it has an effect. At the beginning of a relationship, this often happens automatically, and in strong relationships people continue to pay attention to it.”
The seven characteristics of a happy relationship
Through his research, Gottman eventually found seven characteristics—he calls them pillars—of a happy relationship:
1. Know each other’s inner ‘map’
As partners, you are interested in each other, you know big and small things about each other: how someone drinks their coffee, but also what childhood traumas they carry. You talk about each other’s lives, ask how your day is going, remember to text if you know someone who had a difficult conversation at work today.
2. Share affection and admiration
You have respect and appreciation for each other, and you show it. If this is how you treat each other in a relationship, there isn’t much room for apocalypse rider contempt (one of the biggest predictors of divorce).
3. Turn to each other
In a happy relationship, you react to each other, you visit each other, there is contact. This shows that the other person is important to you and that you value his or her input. The interactions are more positive than negative.
4. Let your partner influence you
When you see yourself as “the boss” and never consider or conform to your partner’s opinion, you indicate that the other person is not important to you, that you do not value his or her ideas.
5. Solve your solvable problems
Gottman’s research shows that 31 percent of the couple’s problems are solvable. Think of a disagreement about the interior design of the house. These kinds of problems are best solved by making compromises.
6. Continue after getting stuck
The rest of the problems, 69 percent, are unsolvable. Think about different views on upbringing, religion or dealing with money. Couples have an average of nine such intractable problems, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a happy relationship. The trick is to find out what’s underneath and why this topic is so important to your partner. You’re not going to fix it, but knowing that makes it easier to continue to honor and value a person’s standards, values, and needs and find a way to not end up in the same discussion over and over again.
7. Build shared meaning
What do you find really important in life as a couple and what kind of future do you see for yourselves? It can also be in rituals, small things you do together that mean something to you. Drink a cup of tea together every evening and discuss e.g. the day.